Wisconsin’s defense comes up big in win over Purdue

MADISON, Wis. | As afternoon turned to evening Saturday the Wisconsin Badgers improved to 6-0 on the season, defeating Purdue 17-9 at a soaked Camp Randall Stadium.

Much like the weather, the game between the Badgers and Boilermakers was ugly throughout. Wisconsin was able to beat Purdue for a 12th straight time thanks to its defense overcoming those adverse conditions and the difficult situations they routinely found themselves in.

On a weekend where college football saw two top-10 teams lose to unranked opponents on Friday, and several more unbeaten teams fall on Saturday, Wisconsin saw a plethora of things go wrong offensively, yet came out with the win because the Badgers did so much well defensively.

A pair of Alex Hornibrook interceptions, a fumble by Jonathan Taylor and a blocked punt forced the Badgers to step up defensively to keep them ahead in the game. That challenge was met. The unit is at the point where they expect to not only win games, but be the reason the team can win in an ugly fashion, the way they did Saturday.

As far as being able to succeed in stressful situations, that’s something the defense has shown they can be counted on for.

“We most definitely take pride in it as soon as we take the field and we’re in that position,” linebacker Chris Orr said following the win. “Everybody is saying ‘They don’t get in the end zone’ or ‘They only leave [with] three at the most.’ It’s most definitely something we take pride in.”

Purdue came away with two field goals in four red zone trips on the day. Their other two trips ended in a Leon Jacobs interception and a missed field goal. Both red zone stops the Badgers got could not have come at a better time for the team.

After the Badgers were forced to punt from their own 47-yard-line, punter Anthony Lotti had his kick blocked by Purdue’s Garrett Hudson. The ball was then scooped up by Race Johnson of the Boilermakers and returned 18 yards. Johnson had a clear path to the end zone, however he came up injured on the play and fell to the turf at Wisconsin’s 15-yard-line.

That was the break the Badgers needed. Over the next four plays, they pushed the Boilermakers back 10 yards, to the 25-yard-line. It was from that spot that kicker JD Dellinger missed the 42-yard attempt.

The other crucial possession came late in the game. After Wisconsin went three-and-out deep in its own territory, the Badgers were forced to punt the ball back to Purdue, holding a 17-9 lead. Elijah Sindelar drove the Boilermakers down the field, reaching the Wisconsin 7-yard line before Jacobs made Sindelar pay for poor decision and throw, coming up with the interception.

“I thought he was throwing it away,” Orr said. “I saw Leon [Jacobs] and the receiver and first I thought, because [Jacob’s] got frying pans for hands, he was going to drop it. But he caught it.

“That was probably the biggest play of the day. Definitely sealed the game for us defensively.”

Wisconsin entered the game ranked No. 8 in the country in red zone defense, allowing teams to score on just 66.7 percent of the ventures inside the 20. The Badgers were even better on Saturday.

“It’s just attitude,” Orr said. “You have to tell yourself and tell your teammates, ‘They’re not going to get in the end zone no matter what. We’re going to fight, claw, scratch battle.’”

Coach Paul Chryst thought the defense was the biggest reason the Badgers were able to come out on top.

“I thought our defense was sensational,” Chryst said.

Another impressive part of the second-half defensive effort was that it came without star linebacker T.J. Edwards. The junior was ejected from the game on a targeting call shortly before halftime. It was tough to lose a leader like Edwards, but the defense was able to rally around his absence.

“Obviously, it sucks losing a linebacker like T.J. [Edwards],” linebacker Garrett Dooley said following the game. “Great player, great leader, but the good news is we have other inside linebackers who have proven to make plays and step up in big spots.”

Before leaving the field, Edwards was able to have one last act of leadership for the day.

“[Edwards] just said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. I know you guys are going to keep balling out there and win this game,’” Dooley said.

Just like a great defense does, the Badgers overcame all the adversity that was thrown at them against Purdue. That’s something that cannot be overstated for this unbeaten squad.

Badgers doing their best to stay focused

For the first time since 2011 the Wisconsin Badgers are unbeaten through five games on the gridiron. Unlike that 2011 season, the 2017 version of the Badgers have an incredibly manageable schedule the rest of the season.

Wisconsin should be a favorite in every game remaining on their schedule, with the closest matchup talent-wise coming in the second to last game of the season, when the University of Michigan comes to Camp Randall. Truthfully speaking, Wisconsin shouldn’t have trouble with Purdue, Maryland, Illinois, or Indiana before they take on Iowa November 11.

Having a schedule like this can give some teams a reason to look ahead, and potentially overlook an opponent, which is something Wisconsin can ill-afford to do.

“I’ve been a part of it and your experiences help guide you.” Head coach Paul Chryst told the media during the week following the win against Nebraska. “I think that’s why you spend a lot of time talking to them about [not looking ahead] and yet in the end every person has to make a choice about how they want to approach it. You try and do all that you can, but at some point, they have to choose. That’s where your veteran leadership has to help.”

The Badgers are starting to attract national attention, moving up to seventh in the Associated Press Poll, their highest ranking since the Big Ten Championship game last December. With the road that’s in front of them, they should climb higher as the season goes on.

“We always have an end goal and things like that, but we know our goal every week is to win that game at hand.” Linebacker TJ Edwards told the media. “I think our team has such good guys who relay that message to the younger guys to not get ahead of ourselves so that’s not really a problem with us.”

For some, it might be easier than others to not look past the week at hand, as Chryst said. One who doesn’t think it’s a challenge is offensive lineman Michael Deiter.

“It’s easy, it’s the same approach as every other season. It’s just another week.” Deiter said. “The 5-0 [record] is nice, that’s good, but we have Purdue this week. There’s no reason to get ahead. You can’t go anywhere beyond the season if you don’t win every game during the season. You can really trip yourself up if you get caught looking forward. It’s just a week to week thing with us and I think we’re good at that.”

The Badgers have high expectations for themselves, which they should. A five-game winning streak to start the season is not something that should be looked upon lightly, especially when one of the wins comes at Nebraska. If they’re going to hit their lofty goals, they’re going to need to keep their focus on a weekly basis.

“Obviously your mind is going to wander and do things like that just because you have such high expectations for this team, and things like that.” Edwards said. “We come in here on Sunday and Monday and know what our goal is at the end of the week.”